HP dialing in on 3-D printing innovation

By Brooks Johnson, Columbian Business Reporter

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Vancouver, we’re told, will be at the center of the next industrial revolution.

“The vision is to fundamentally do things in a different way,” said Shane Wall, chief technology officer for HP Inc. “It’s a 30-year vision, and it’s going to start happening this fall.”

HP’s Vancouver campus is playing a big role in the company’s future and its planned revolution as it pivots from printers and PCs to 3-D printers, wearable technology and the “internet of things.” Though it’s one of many limbs of the California-based tech company, Vancouver is home to HP’s incubator, and it’s where the chief technology officer and the head of the 3-D printer division go to work.

“This is happening here,” Wall said on Wednesday as he shared his vision for the company in a new addition to HP’s Vancouver campus, a slice of Silicon Valley in a nondescript building at the Columbia Tech Center.

The “core technologies” for 3-D printing are being developed here, and the first line of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3-D printers go on sale this fall. Wall sees the foray into the burgeoning market as less of a bet and more of a promise.

“We’ve created technology that is going to absolutely revolutionize manufacturing,” he said. “We didn’t start at a technology standpoint; we took a look at where society is going.”

Sporting one of the company’s new smartwatches, a designer brand with built-in and hardly noticeable tech components, Wall said 3-D printing can shorten supply chains and give companies the power to manufacture for themselves — container shipping could be a thing of the past.

It won’t happen overnight — Wall stressed the company is looking decades out — but HP plans to be at the front of this potentially profitable disruption.

“I’m here to recreate the icon of Silicon Valley,” he said, “to put HP back at the forefront of technology.”

The tech giant’s presence in Vancouver has changed the city forever. HP came to town in 1979 and lit the fuse of a tech sector that is now booming in Clark County, bringing high-paying jobs and a highly skilled workforce to Southwest Washington. Former HP employees-turned-entrepreneurs dot the area’s business landscape that has steadily diversified in the past few decades.

“HP for a long time has provided generations of folks that have been integral in our community,” said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council. “They also create some gravity and draw for tech talent. Beyond just the direct economic impact, we’re excited to see the progress going on there.”

The company outsourced its printer manufacturing in the 1990s, triggering an employment decline from its heyday of several thousand workers. But HP’s current footprint at the Tech Center has a lot of new desks that need to be filled.

Various teams working on software, printers, operating systems and the company’s newest initiatives will set up shop in the two-building complex with a shared courtyard HP has quietly been remaking in its own image over the past six months. An open floor plan with a woodsy Northwest flair and the company’s signature blue-and-white color scheme make the space welcoming and breathable.

Though the company wouldn’t say how many employees it’s looking to add, Wall noted HP could benefit from Intel’s recent layoffs in Hillsboro, Ore.

While printing remains a “profitable part of our business,” Wall said, part of HP’s future banks on “blended reality.”

“It’s where technology disappears into the physical world,” he said.

That means smartwatches made by designer brands such as Isaac Mizrahi, Movado and Titan with HP tech built-in — though not evident. Some models are already on sale for $245 to $695.

The “blended reality” theme carries into 3-D printing, as Wall demonstrated Wednesday. Holding his smartphone over a cog that was printed that morning, an app picked up a hidden code printed inside the piece that gave details about its materials and origins. Taking that approach to the “internet of things,” that is, the technology-laced interconnectedness of everyday objects, will be another focus for the HP Inc. of the future.

“We’re talking about the internet of all things,” Wall said.

Hewlett-Packard Co. split into two companies last year, HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, the latter of which focuses on IT solutions for business. Both are headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif. HP Inc. is more nimble as a result of the split.

“It allowed us to focus on new disruptions like these,” Wall said. “The combined company would not have been able to do that.”

HP’s reinvestment in Vancouver means new jobs and new life for the 76-year-old tech company, Wall said. From an unassuming corner of the Columbia Tech Center that now gives birth to 3-D printers, Wall let out a casual yet pointed exclamation: “This is the new HP Vancouver.”